Nathan and Jaymes stay for the cast party and meet some interesting people.
Stood alone in the darkened room, Nathan glared hard out through the front window into the bleak night. Dark bulky shapes—the outlines of cars—stood beneath a clear night sky full of bleary-eyed stars. Memories of a peaceful, almost transformational, weekend had dissolved in just a few minutes. Only as he stood there for a full minute with the phone glued to his ear, his temper held at bay, did he realise nothing was happening. When he checked closely, by the light of the device’s display, he realised his phone had no signal, not a single bar. Audibly, he cursed himself. He hadn’t even asked his hosts if they had a WiFi network he could log onto. His first thought was to head back and find Gallagher and Martin, ask to use the house phone—Jaymes had left his mobile phone at home, insisting on a tech-detox weekend—but then, at the notion of Jaymes, other thoughts crowded his mind and he stalled.
Had Lawrence been Jaymes’ ex-lover? The one who cheated on him? Admittedly, Lawrence did have a certain charisma. Until he opened his mouth. Surely the Jaymes he had grown to know—and yes, love—would never have fallen for someone so shallow and self-absorbed. And hearing him articulate Jaymes’ wanderlust in terms of being commitment phobic was at the very least unsettling. Part of coming to terms with Jaymes’ eventual departure had been his understanding that Jaymes’ enjoyed his profession with a passion. As far as Nathan was concerned, anyone who loved their job in this life deserved to be given every possible latitude to follow their dreams.
“Nathan? Nathan Fresher?” came a deep voice, both familiar and unfamiliar.
Nathan turned to see the silhouette of a short man in the doorway, the light from the hallway behind him.
“Do you mind if I switch the light on?” came the voice, and before Nathan could respond, light flooded the room. Only then did Nathan realise he stood in a room off the main hallway. Large black plastic boxes—the solid types used by removal companies—formed a wall against one side of the room. On each, the letters HBC4 stencilled onto the side in bright green. Apart from three stainless steel coat racks filled with coats of all colours and sizes, the room was otherwise bare, in stark contrast to the rest of the house.
Giorgio Costello came into the room and shut the door behind him, before turning to Nathan.
“I was trying to make a call. But there’s no signal.”
“Yep, this place is a freaking fortress. Try outside the front of the house. Or the back but it’s a little rowdy. I managed a few calls in the parking bay earlier. Listen, I’m glad I caught you, I wanted to speak to you in private. About Clifton. And I saw you dive in here, so I thought I’d grab my chance.”
At first, Nathan wondered if Giorgio wanted to talk about the filming at his shop but then noted Giorgio’s seriousness. After scrutinising Nathan in silence for an uncomfortable minute, he let out a deep sigh.
“If only Clifton had ended up with someone like you, things would be so much easier. Raul’s a lovely guy but they’re both constantly in the spotlight, both being scrutinised by those muck-raking media morons. Couples are so much easier to handle when one of them’s a nobody.”
Maybe Nathan should have been more insulted, but a sudden thought had come to him. Had Giorgio been the one hovering and watching from outside the bedroom when Clifton made his move? Was that why he was here? Perhaps he realised the slight in his final words because he quickly appended his remark.
“No offence meant.”
“None taken. But you know that could never have happened, don’t you?” said Nathan, trying to preempt any accusation. “My inherited vocation not only ties me to one place six days a week—most of the time, anyway—but also means me having to be up well before the crack of dawn. I could never have accompanied Clifton to his endless parade of evening celebrity shindigs or travelled abroad with him.”
“You could have sold up.”
“It’s a family business.” Recently, those two last words had begun to lose their power. And had he discussed the same thing with someone recently? Or maybe the fanciful notion had visited him in his sleep once again. And why he felt the need to justify himself to Giorgio, he had no idea.
“Now that I do understand. My family’s Italian American, settled in New York from Sicily in 1910. Our family restaurant business became a way of life. My oldest brother still runs the outfit back of the Meatpacking District. Only kept afloat because the rest of us throw money at the place. Should have gone under years ago.”
“My shop still makes money. If yours isn’t, why aren’t you tempted to let it go?”
“That’s what I’m saying. The shop is as much a part of the family as our own flesh and blood.”
“And how many are there? In your family?”
“Including me? Eight. Five brothers and three sisters.”
“What if it had just been you?”
“What do you mean?”
Even Nathan had been thrown by his own sudden change of tack.
“What if you’d been an only child and your family place was going down the drain.”
Giorgio stared hard at Nathan for a long time before he spoke again.
“You need financial backing? Is that what you’re driving at? Because publicity from the television shoot is more than likely going—”
“No,” said Nathan, harder than he meant to. “That’s not what I’m asking. The bakery is doing fine. But if it wasn’t, whether a family business or not, I’m not sure I’d have your faith. Maybe you do understand the extra pressure that goes with keeping a family business afloat, but it feels as though all I’m doing right now—by keeping the damned place going—is being loyal to ghosts.”
Giorgio had a habit of rubbing two fingers and the thumb of his right hand together when he thought hard. Maybe he wished they held a cigar for him to puff on. Eventually he broke the silence.
“Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. Clifton says you know about his—uh—predicament.”
“You mean the bastard ex and his hidden handy-cam?”
Giorgio’s pudgy face broke into a yellow-toothed smile then.
“One way of putting it.”
“When you do find him—before you throw his arse in jail—will you promise to bring him to the shop so that I can be the first one to kick him in the nuts.”
This time Giorgio laughed aloud, and also appeared to relax. Why had he been so tense?
“Look, in case you’re going to ask, I will not tell another living soul. Cliff is a good friend—always will be. If there is anything I can do to help him—legally—just let me know.”
“You told him to come clean. To give an interview.”
“Well I didn’t exactly tell him to give an interview, but I told him I thought honesty is best. Rip off the plaster, so to speak. Before some rag or another sniffs out a little bit of the story, and then makes up the rest.”
“Which is what I advised him months ago. And it seems he’s come around now, after chatting with you. So I just wanted to come and say thank you. You’re impartial, unlike Raul and me, and I’m quickly getting to realise that you’re a good influence. You two used to have a thing, didn’t you?”
Ah, thought Nathan, so here it comes.
“When we were kids. Long time ago. Water under the bridge. We’re just friends now.”
“We are. And in case it escaped your notice, Jaymes and I are very happy together.”
Giorgio nodded sagely and began to turn for the door, before turning back.
“He still carries a torch for you, you know? Ever since he’s been back.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll get over it.”
“Mark my words. When he’s holding a couple of giggling, dribbling babies and is up to his knees in poopy nappies, I’ll be but a distant memory. He won’t give me a second thought or—”
Right at that moment, the door opened a crack and Jaymes poked his head in.
“There you are. I thought you’d run off. Finished helping Gallagher and then I couldn’t find you anywhere. Sorry for leaving you with Lawrence. But I think if I’d stayed, things might have gotten ugly.”
“Lovable Larry. They did anyway, I’m afraid.”
“Oh shit,” said Jaymes, coming into the room. “What happened?”
“You can probably guess. He said some unpleasant things about you, which I was not about to let go unchallenged. His finale was along the lines of me not being good enough to snare someone like you.”
“Sorry, who is this you’re talking about?” asked Giorgio.
“Lawrence Cotterbourne,” said Jaymes. “One of the cast members, I’m guessing. Someone I used to know.”
“Who’s currently with his pals getting ‘freshened up’ in an upstairs cloakroom.” Nathan used double finger air quotes to emphasis the two words. “Whatever the hell that means.”
“He’s what?” said Giorgio, his tone almost as dark as his face.
“Someone came and dragged him away. Those were the exact words they used.”
“Upstairs, you say?” said Giorgio, moving quickly to the door. “Thanks for the heads-up. That’s all I need. Clifton involved in a police raid on a house where their idea of a party is popping pills and snorting happy dust. See you guys later. Once I’ve dealt with this shit.”
When Giorgio squeezed past Jaymes and closed the door, Jaymes simply stood there. They both appeared oddly awkward around each other.
“Oops, sorry. Did I just snitch on your ex?” said Nathan, trying to make light of things.
“My ex?” said Jaymes, his eyes narrowing on Nathan. “You think Lawrence is my ex?”
“Give me some credit, Nate. Yes, we were at college together and we kind of bounced around in similar circles, but we were never more than friends of friends. What are you doing in here, anyway? Surely not hiding from a prick like Lawrence?”
“No. I’m trying to call Arlene bloody Killjoy. Some kind soul has already published one of the naked team photos online, one of mine. A random woman singled me out after you went to help Gallagher. I want to hear what Arlene has to say, because she’s probably the one who leaked the thing.”
“Okay,” said Jaymes, shrugging. “And the problem is—?”
“The problem is I’ve been blindsided.”
“Didn’t you give your consent for her to use the photos?”
“Yes, but...” Nathan responded, but then hesitated. Jaymes stared at him in all innocence and didn’t see the breach of faith in what she had done. Yes, truth be told, he had agreed to her using his photographs for an online magazine, so she’d done nothing illicit. But he had expected to be given some notice, at least, as a simple courtesy.
“Nate. Eventually these calendars are going to go on sale, yes? For charity. That was the point of the exercise. And then, the whole world will be able to purchase them and see you in the buff.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Taking her side?”
“Taking her side? Seriously? I’m not taking her side, I’m not taking anyone’s side. I’m simply stating a fact. You told me an online magazine reporter spoke to Jenny and wanted copies of your photo, that they were going to do an article about the calendar.”
“After speaking to me.”
“Oh, I see,” said Jaymes, holding both palms up, his face registering comprehension. “Okay, in which case I apologise. You didn’t tell me that bit. Now I understand why you’re pissed.”
“I—” began Nathan, but then realised he’d only assumed the reporter would want to speak to him. “Actually, no. You’re right. We didn’t agree that part. I guess I just assumed—hell, I don’t know what I assumed.”
Jaymes let out a deep sigh and studied Nathan.
“Are you having second thoughts about being in the calendar, Nate? Because if you are, you really need to have a conversation with Arlene before—”
“I’m not having second thoughts,” said Nathan, pushing a hand through his hair and looking suitably rattled. “I just—I was thrown. What do you say when some random woman walks up, calls you the naked baker, and then mentions you having hot cross buns.”
At least Jaymes had the decency to put a hand over his mouth to mask his smile.
“Apart from telling her to keep her bloody hands to herself, I’d say she has pretty good taste.”
“Jaymes,” said Nathan, not seeing the humour in the remark.
But Jaymes strode forward and pulled Nathan into a hug. At first Nathan resisted, but after a few moments he relaxed into Jaymes’ body warmth. Perhaps Jaymes had a point, he thought. Soon the whole world would be able to buy the calendar online, and he did seem to remember telling Jenny he didn’t mind if the Huffpost journalist did a story on them and used a photo. Maybe Lawrence had wound him up more than he’d realised.
“What’s going on with you, Nate? This weekend you’ve been so changeable; incredibly chilled one moment, and then as tight as a Scotman’s wallet the next. So here’s a thought for you to consider. Instead of calling Arlene—who will probably be doubly pissed about not having been invited to Clifton’s cast party—and giving her a hard time, how about you phone Jenny and ask her? She’s been pretty up front to deal with.”
Nathan chuckled into Jaymes’ shoulder and then sighed. When Jaymes left, he was going to miss having someone calming him down, someone providing plain common sense. Right then, he considered asking Jaymes about Lawrence’s quip, about the ex who had taken his own life. But even if Lawrence had been telling the truth, he might only succeed in pissing Jaymes off, and he liked this version of Jaymes. As if hearing Nathan’s thoughts, Jaymes brought them face to face and kissed him, softly at first, but at Nathan’s enthusiastic reciprocation, the kiss became something more urgent and carnal. Eventually Jaymes broke away breathless.
“This feels really sordid and wholly disrespectful, making out in our good friend’s storeroom. Is there a lock on this door?”
“Hate to be the voice of reason,” said Nathan, straightening Jaymes’ collar, “but shouldn’t we get back to the party? It’s ten-thirty and people are leaving now, anyway—I can hear cabs pulling up—and I want to be there to help Martin and Gallagher.”
“And then we can head to bed.”
“Now you’re talking—”
“On our eeky, squeaky, bouncy castle mattress.”
“But we’ll be home tomorrow night, just you and me. Once we get rid of Polly.”
“Just us,” said Jaymes, adjusting his trousers before learning in and kissing Nathan again, softly and almost chastely this time. When Nathan pulled away, he still had his hands on each of Jaymes’ shoulders.
“Who’s going to be my voice of reason when you’re gone?”
“If the website I checked out is telling the truth, they now have mobile phones and FaceTime in Malaysia. There might be a bit of a time difference, but I’ll still be at the end of a phone line, Nate. It’s not the end of the world. And Polly will still be here.”
“Fair point. Okay, I’m decent again. Let’s head back.”
“Hang on,” said Jaymes, grabbing Nathan’s hand. “I know it’s late. But how about you try phoning Jenny now? Rather than leave things until the morning.”
Which is exactly what they agreed. Nathan found a quiet spot out front—away from the noise of departing cars and arriving taxis—where he managed to get a decent reception. As soon as a signal kicked in, he noticed missed calls and another two messages from Polly had popped up on his phone. The earlier one had been a simple ‘how are things?’ which he chose to ignore. These appeared far more urgent, including a ‘call me back now!’ Instant coldness filled him and he immediately thumbed Polly’s number.
“Polly, it’s Nath—”
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve called you three times this evening. Did you turn your phone off?”
“I didn’t, it’s— I didn’t realise I couldn’t get a signal in the house.” Nathan realised he had stopped breathing. “What happened? Why did you call? Is it the shop? Tell me it’s not the shop.”
“Okay, first of all calm down, Nathan.” Probably realising the concern she’d caused him, Polly’s voice softened. “The shop is fine and business has been amazing. Just so you know, the poor buggers were rushed off their feet again today. Molly said people kept coming in all day asking if you were around, not regulars according to her. And some of them stood outside the shop, taking selfies with the shop as the backdrop. What that was about nobody seems to know. Any ideas?”
“Ah, yes. Somehow one of the naked photos of me was published in an online publication. I was about to phone Jenny the photographer to find out more. So that’s what you were calling about?”
“Uh, no. So, anyway, after a crazy day, they managed to close the doors at around six-thirty. Some people were still in the shop, so Fingal and Molly served the last of the customers while I helped them, standing at the locked front door letting people out. When I went to let the last woman and her kid go, a man came up and tapped his knuckle on the front window. I was about to tell him to bugger off, but Nathan, when I saw his face I nearly fell over.”
“Why? Who was it?”
“Fingal asked me if it was you,” said Polly, skirting the truth. “Asked why I wasn’t letting you in. Honest to God, Nathan, the guy could have been your older brother. Your really good-looking older brother. So of course I let him in and, like everyone else that day, he asked for you. I told him you were away and he said he’d come back and see you Wednesday. Said he’s away in the north of England until then. Honestly Nathan, even though his voice is very different—an Australian accent—he even has the same eyes and nose as you.”
“Grant Brooks,” Nathan spoke quietly, looking over at Jaymes who sensed something wrong and strolled over to stand next to him. “My long lost Australian cousin?”
“One and the same.”
“Did he say what he wanted? Or did he leave a number?”
“No. Just needs to talk to you. He wouldn’t say any more than that, and, believe me, I tried. Took him out for a drink at the local. Interesting guy. Over here for a month, is all I could get out of him. Despite my usual irresistible charm, he was totally tight-lipped when it came to you.”
“You took him for a drink?”
“Of course I did. How does the saying go? Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies—”
“You think he’s an enemy?”
“All I can tell you with any certainty is that he is definitely from the same Fresher gene pool as you. And, as I say, he wouldn’t take your phone number, wants to speak to you in person.”
“Thanks Polly. We’ll be back around three-thirty tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, Nathan. He seems like a nice guy and I am usually a good judge of character.”
“I’m friends with you, aren’t I?”
Thanks for reading.
Love the comments, reactions and ideas around each chapter, so keep them all coming.